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Zodiac on El Capitan (Fourth Solo Ascent)


 

by Karl "Baba" Bralich

December 29, 2001

After living and working in Yosemite for three years, I was returning to college and leaving paradise behind. I wanted an adventure that would honor and culminate that wonderful period of my life: learning to climb and living in beauty. I was looking for an El Cap route to solo.

At the time, this was taking a rather large bite of adventure. I had only done three walls: Leaning Tower, the Nose, and a solo of the Prow. I decided to do Zodiac because it was well suited to soloing (it was put up solo). It had only been soloed two or three times by 1982 and there was still plenty of nailing. Zodiac was considered about A3+ in those days. It would be hard for me, but I really wanted to ascend that beautiful white circle that makes it such a distinctive route. It thought its poetry of stone would make a perfect final love letter from me to Yosemite.

I hoped "final" meant "until I return" but I was constantly aware that many poems offer tragic irony. I was studying the topo for the route when a black spider crawled across the page and stopped right on one of the crux pitches high on the route; the Mark of Zorro. I had a dark feeling. I knew I was creating a rite of passage for myself that had to bare teeth to carry meaning.

I tackled the mountain of logistics and applied for vacation. It was June, 1982, when my great friend and partner from work, Steve Brosig helped me carry the pig to the stone for the marathon dance of destiny. I was relieved that the first pitch, which had a reputation for being fairly hard, wasnít anything I couldnít handle. At the time, it was a hanger-less bolt ladder followed by Lost Arrows and small wired nuts. I fixed two or three pitches and spent my last untethered night at the base with Brosig, the High School buddy who knew me best and would usher me to the gate of vertical solitude.

I jugged the fixed line in the morning and began the routine of concentration and action in which I would be immersed for days: Lead the pitch, rap the overhanging haul line and pull myself back into the wall, lower out the bag, clean the pitch, haul, organize, and say grace over the next pitch. All day, scanning the stone right before my eyes, choosing the piece, and living with that choice until the next piece. I was so immersed in the focus of my acts that it was impossible to dwell on any petty aspect of my potential life on the ground. I lived with a constant state of background anxiety over my position suspended over the void alone. The fear would well and wax when I was on a bad placement; I would just will myself to act in the face of exposure and dread, which would subside like the surf once a bomber piece offered deliverance.

The nights would offer a more complex mental phantasmagoria. I was free from the need to focus and all the repressed stress from the day would parade before my minds eye when I tried to sleep. I almost took pleasure in the sensation of sudden weightlessness and falling that shocked me to alertness at the brink of sleeping. It was the feeling I had anticipated a hundred times earlier in the day. Most free climbing falls come as little surprise. Aid climbing has a much more insidious tension involved. Bad aid placements are like time bombs; most were duds but I couldnít read how much time was left on the live ones. The signal that a fall was inevitable was a sudden sharp sound accompanied by a feeling of weightlessness, of my stomach rising in my chest. Often, the piece that betrays you hits you in the face just as you are launched into the unknown. The sudden shifting of carabiners loaded with slings, daisy chains and aiders caused countless false alarms every day.

I sunk deeper and deeper into the routine every day until after 3 or 4 days, it seemed like the only thing I had done in my life was stand in aiders. I was losing contact with the world of people, plants and animals. There was only the stone and space. My one respite from solitude was a nightly call on a CB walkie-talkie that I brought on the climb. My friend Steve would drive to El Cap meadow and check in on me. Sometimes he would bring a friend of mine or a beautiful woman friend he might be trying to impress. I wondered if I would ever return to that world of comfort and togetherness that beckoned me from only a stones throw away, yet unreachably distant. I did relish this retreat into intensity and solitude, but there was always the pressure to run the gauntlet every day with full attention and appreciation for my situation.

I was a natural creature of the granite world by the time I reached peanut ledge, 300 feet from the top. There was little doubt that if I kept my focus, I would top out the next day without major incident. That was until the weather changed suddenly. It was nearing the end of June but it was getting cloudier, and colder, and more foreboding.

The rain began to fall a short distance out from the wall. I seemed to be protected by overhanging rock but in no time, the water was blowing right back to me. I figured most rain in June is mild and doesnít last long. I hadnít even brought a sleeping bag, only a wool blanket and pile clothing. I didnít think to set up the crappy Grammici (Version .75) portaledge that I brought. I just hung the fly and crouched under it shivering and praying. Sometimes the rain would turn to snow. After an eternally long and cold night, I awoke to a vista of cloudy oblivion.

The clouds enveloped me but occasionally parted to reveal the ranger vehicles parked in El Cap Meadow. I heard their Megphones "Climbers on El Cap Tower, do you need a rescue? Raise one hand for yes, two hands forÖ.." There were helicopters flying incessantly. I learned later that folks were plucked off El Cap and Half Dome. I wondered how Mike Corbett was doing. He was high on a new route that was out of sight to the left. After he got down, he was going to call it "Riders on the Storm" but the route is now "Pacemaker". I was shivering and miserable and sorely tempted to call for a rescue since it was going on all around me anyway. I resisted. I really was hanging on to this "do or die" intent. I had come this far and I would struggle to the top somehow. I didnít know if I was being stupid or strong, I just knew what my decision was.

Brosig was down in the meadow with the weather report delivered by Steve Schneider (before he was barely climbing 5.12) Schneider told me that the storm was here to stay and I should consider climbing my way out of there if it was at all possible. It was good advice. During a break in the storm, I fixed a pitch off of Peanut, during another break, I climbed to within a pitch of the top. I set up my ledge one pitch from the top and hoped for the best. I could barely make a fist with my hands. I took two aspirin before going to sleep, thinking it would help me be comfortable. I awoke later in the night and my whole body felt numb! All the nerves were deadened! This was a bizarre sensation but I just had to accept it whether it had consequences or not. I would just bear with everything until its conclusion.

The next day, I sneaked to the top during a break in the storm. The pitch was challenging because it called for some intermittent free moves that were wet. I finally reached the summit and my deliverance. The moment was somewhat tainted by the loathsome need to rap back down into oblivion to clean the final pitch. Soon all my world was on top of El Capitan and for the first time, rays of sunlight streamed down on my grateful countenance and I felt a soaring natural high. I tried to dry things out a bit and soon my friends Brosig and Kevin were on top to help me carry the pig down. In my state of mind, these were magical, mythical beings, glowing with life and energy. Even the plants seemed to pulse with a vitality that was only evident since I had spent a week staring at stark granite. Walking was also a unique and joyful experience. Stepping freely without a care for my safety or the burden of a wall rack was like being able to fly! My friends offered me a small sip of wine which only magnified the contrast of my redemption. They informed me that my car was parked at Tamarak Flat but suffered from a flat tire and a flat spare. It didnít matter. With unimaginable gusto and love, the three brothers headed for the East Ledges descent. It rained and poured on us while we rappeled, and the ropes even seemed stuck. It didnít matter. Now everything would be overcome with good feelings and time. Soon I re-entered the world of my past with a fresh and vital affection.

Peace and Love



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